Morlot Pastoral Was Naughty but Nice

United StatesUnited States Sibelius, Dusapin, and Beethoven: Renaud Capuçon (violin), Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 15.11.2013 (BJ)

Sibelius: Tapiola
Dusapin: Violin Concerto, Aufgang
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, Pastoral


After last week’s Mahler Sixth, it was a very different sixth symphony that featured in the Seattle Symphony’s 15 November concert. And, appropriately, music director Ludovic Morlot presided over a performance that also could hardly have breathed a more different atmosphere.

In strong contrast not only to the Mahler but to the storming Beethoven of its predecessor the Fifth Symphony, his Sixth is a work that luxuriates in all the relaxed breadth and picturesque charm that its authentic “Pastoral” subtitle suggests. Morlot here offered some of the most convincing interpretation I have encountered so far in his Beethoven. There was a delightful lightness to the tone and spring to the rhythm. Tempos were well chosen, with the “Scene by the brook” paced with admirable fluency, and dynamics were controlled both accurately and—witness the finale’s undemonstratively peaceful conclusion—subtly.

With suitably featherlike articulation from the strings throughout, lovely playing by clarinetist Christopher Sereque and the other woodwind principals, neatly pointed horn solos by Jeff Fair, and characteristically crisp timpani incursions by Michael Crusoe in the “Storm” movement, the performance could in every respect but one be accounted a resounding success. My only regret, especially with a reading that so refreshingly evoked the atmosphere of the first movement’s country stroll, was Morlot’s naughty, and structurally damaging, decision to omit the exposition repeat indicated in the score.

This afternoon concert had begun with a no less impressive performance of one of Sibelius’s greatest works, the substantial and magical tone poem Tapiola. The luminous B-major chords on divided strings that bring the piece to a close that is as satisfying as it is delicate hung like a benison on the air as we prepared to listen to the United States premiere of the Violin Concerto by the 58-year-old French composer Pascal Dusapin.

Roughly half an hour in length, the piece bears the German subtitle “Aufgang,” which is variously translatable as “rising,” “ascent,” or (the program annotator’s choice) “stairway.” Dusapin is a skillful orchestrator, so there were some telling sonorities to be heard, and he has crafted a solo line that enabled Renaud Capuçon’s tone, at once silvery and solid, to sing. But his new work seems to me to fall into the category envisaged by that gifted musical explicator, the late David Drew, under the heading of “The Society for the Promotion of 20th-Century Program Notes”—it sounds more like the realization of a carefully prepared scenario than the outgrowth of a genuinely musical inspiration.

In other words, having chosen his subtitle and mentally sketched for himself the central idea that “the violin leads the orchestra upwards, to the heavens and the light,” Dusapin concentrates so completely on that concept that any real development of specific musical ideas is far to seek. There is nothing ugly or ungainly about the solo part, but anything so vulgar as a tune is conspicuous by its absence, and the same can be said of the orchestral writing, which leaves the instruments for the most part confined to sustained notes or repeated rhythms. Concert-goers suspicious of “modern music” may have been relieved at not having been subjected to too much violent dissonance, but I very much doubt whether, even without the interposition of Beethoven’s memorable tunes, anyone would have gone home whistling bits of Dusapin’s concerto to himself.

Bernard Jacobson

Leave a Comment